Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Arctic Sea Ice melting faster than projected

Keep Winter Cool

So far, this has been a whirl wind of a week. As I consider myself a bit of a renaissance person with a lot of different interests, I actually wanted to explore nuclear energy because of what James Lovelock wrote in his comment in the Independent:

"Most of us are aware of some degree of warming; winters are warmer and spring comes earlier. But in the Arctic, warming is more than twice as great as here in Europe and in summertime, torrents of melt water now plunge from Greenland's kilometre-high glaciers. The complete dissolution of Greenland's icy mountains will take time, but by then the sea will have risen seven metres, enough to make uninhabitable all of the low lying coastal cities of the world, including London, Venice, Calcutta, New York and Tokyo. Even a two metre rise is enough to put most of southern Florida under water.

The floating ice of the Arctic Ocean is even more vulnerable to warming; in 30 years, its white reflecting ice, the area of the US, may become dark sea that absorbs the warmth of summer sunlight, and further hastens the end of the Greenland ice. The North Pole, goal of so many explorers, will then be no more than a point on the ocean surface.

Not only the Arctic is changing; climatologists warn a four-degree rise in temperature is enough to eliminate the vast Amazon forests in a catastrophe for their people, their biodiversity, and for the world, which would lose one of its great natural air conditioners."

In permaculture, 'permies' as we call ourselves, are interested in the integration of various systems, and the understanding, that all of those systems are related, interconnected, and mutually dependent. Change one, you change the rest. It then becomes the domino effect. In the negative it means for example that you pollute soil (replenishing, healing the soil is one of the important goals of permies), you effect healthy micro organisms, in turn effecting depletion of nutrition and disabling the organic growing environment. Hence, when Lovelock mentioned the cycle of positive feedback, which in turn amplifies the temperature and the increase in temperature would do away with the one big hepa filter the world has (Amazon rainforest), I 'saw' the cycle, and understood the urge of redressing that course that Lovelock is after by endorsing nuclear energy.

In the short time I've browsed and printed out articles and the little bit of reading I can do in between, I have noticed what a controversial subject it is. Accusations of funding towards any pro-nuclear groups, the heated debate around nuclear energy and the environmentalists who are the proponents of it.. It's dizzying. So let me put it this way; what can we all agree on?
The fact that the Arctic sea ice is melting at a greater rate than first expected is something that should alarm both the pro and anti nuclear camps;

"(For) the new study, Dr. Stroeve and others at the ice center reviewed nearly six decades of measurements by ships, airplanes and satellites estimating the maximum and minimum area of Arctic sea ice, which typically expands most in March and shrinks most in September.

With an expert from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, also in Boulder, they then compared the observed trends with the projections made for the climate panel’s review using the world’s most advanced computer models of climate.

Dr. Stroeve’s team found that since 1953 the area of sea ice in September has declined at an average rate of 7.8 percent per decade. Computer climate simulations of the same period had an average rate of ice loss of 2.5 percent per decade."

This is why I feel an urgency to figure out for myself whether I concur that nuclear energy is the best option to stop this positive feedback loop as much as we can.

Look into the system of the sea ice and how everything is connected and effected.


DV8 2XL said...

The one common ground that exists between the pro and antinuclear sides is the desire to see an end to the burning of coal to provide base-load electrical power. Where they diverge is on what can and should replace it. The issue of energy for transportation is, at the moment, secondary to this question.

Pronuclear supporters can show that a judicious mix of appropriate reactor designs would be able to meet current and future energy needs while both burning waste actinides and breeding more fuel. They point out that all of these designs have been proven by demonstration reactors on more than one occasion and that these technologies are sufficiently mature for commercial use.

Critics of this path claim that the technology is inherently dangerous if mishandled and fear that rapid growth would leave room for error due to incompetence, as safety could not be adequately monitored over a large number of installations. They feel that this coupled with the potential magnitude and impact of failure makes this path unwise.

They also feel that global deployment of nuclear energy would permit the development of knowledge and skills that could easily be perverted to weapons production.

Antinuclear supporters have calculated that by applying off-the-shelf technology, a mix of energy efficient devices and behaviors would permit all of our energy needs to be met with a mix of wind, solar, geothermal, hydro, and biofuel sources. They properly point out that much of the energy now delivered to both domestic and commercial users is wasted as heat or in hot-idle, (think of lights in an empty office building after hours) or is used to overcome poor initial design.

Detractors point out that the issue of irregular supply from these sources in the absence of efficient storage and the largely unsolved problem of distribution network control makes this route impractical. Furthermore they point out that the required changes that would have to be made on both the production and consumption ends of the system would be both expensive to install and would require unique designs for every site. They question if this overhaul would see any reduction in total energy usage within a reasonable time-frame given the initial outlay for new apparatus.

I have limited this discussion the more reasonable issues. Like all large public debates there are loud, but essentially rhetorical arguments that tend to obscure the legitimate ones.

Ingrid said...

you certainly have a wealth of knowledge. So what you just mentioned, the anti nuclear camp is mostly fearful of the potential of misuse and/or incompetence? Do they acknowledge then that the safety of nuclear energy is not as much of an issue as the fear of management? That would be interesting because that is something that can be addressed by setting up standards and oversight controls.. I appreciate you sticking to the factual and practical part of the debate. As you can tell, rhetorics of either persuasion is something I do not care about.

DV8 2XL said...

Stripped of both its technical and ideological components the argument presents itself as a three-way choice between risk, cost and quality of life; any two can be optimal.

We have learned to manage risk in a number of domains, most notably transportation. Cars, boats, and aircraft are not seen as so much dangerous as intolerant of error. We have erected a body of rules and standards for design, maintenance, and operation of these devices that minimizes the risks (without eliminating them) to within generally accepted limits. The legislative apparatus already exists to extend this philosophy to cover nuclear energy in all jurisdictions.

However it is important also to keep in mind that no solution to the CO2 issue is going to come without costs. A great deal of investment will have to be made irregardless of what path we take – so much that the choices made now will be for, all intents and purposes, permanent. Infrastructure once in place is not an asset that can be easily abandoned, nor can it be retasked on a whim.

I will not reject as erroneous the argument that total energy usage could be rolled back to a fraction of the current per-capita usage. However I strongly doubt that this could be accomplished without a considerable drop in our standard of living and would require draconian enforcement to bring about nether of which is likely to be popular.

Therein lies the rub: while much has been made of the secondary costs of nuclear power by its detractors, to the point that we can say with some confidence that all of nuclear’s cards are on the table, the same cannot be said of the ‘alterative energy’ (to put them all in a basket) side. For years prior to ant programs, ethanol was tooted about as the solution to our transportation fuel problems, yet now only a couple of years in major issues, like the impact on food prices, and soil conservation, and air quality are already coming to fore. I would like to see a wider examination of the total impacts all the non nuclear options before a decision is made.

Anonymous said...

In terms of our ability to manage large numbers of nuclear facilities, the nuclear industry's record speaks for itself. With ~400 Western reactors, operated over 30+ years, no member of the public killed and no measurable public health impact. Also of note is the fact that the ANNUAL death toll from fossil plants greatly exceeds the consequences of even a worst-case nuclear accident.

Concerning proliferation, a distinction needs to be made between increasing nuclear power use at home (in the US) or in other developed countries that already have nuclear plants, versus setting up nuclear power programs in developing (and possibly unstable) nations. Although the risk of proliferation from nuclear power plants is small (as long as fuel cycle technologies are not exported), limiting the spread of nuclear power to new, developing nations is something that could be considered. Increasing nuclear power in countries that already have programs, however, very clearly has no impact at all on proliferation period.

The anti-nuclear side has been deliberatley trying to blur this distinction, and confuse the issue. Because it could affect proliferation if we built plants in, say, Afghanistan, nuclear power (in general) is labeled a proliferation risk, and therefore building an additional plant at an existing reactor site in the US contributes to proliferation. What hogwash!

I'm actually not enthusiastic about spreading nuclear technology to every little nation in the world. Countries that already have reactors account for over 80% of the world's air pollution and CO2 emissions. Using more nuclear in these countries will be sufficient to get almost all the benefits to the global environment that nuclear has to offer. This would save more of the other, more easily managed fuels (such as natural gas) for the developing countries to use. In fact, using more nuclear in the developed world will actually reduce the incentive to use it in the developing world, as it will reduce the price/scarcity of oil and gas, and push back the day when these sources start to run out.

Finally, suffice it to say that I disagree with the anti's "calculation" that all of our future energy needs can be accommodated by conservation and renewables alone. Renewables intermittentcy (let alone high cost) will limit their contribution to a small fraction of total generation. Although conservation looks good (i.e., economic) on paper, history (as well as virtually all expert opinion) shows that the most we can hope for is a reduction in the rate of increase in electricity demand.

There is one easy answer to all these economic questions. Just tax or cap air pollution and CO2 emissions and see what happens. Many of the environmentalists (including anti-nukes) SAY this is exactly the policy they want. I think if we enacted such a policy, they will be surprised at the result (with respect to nuclear). Nuclear supports are extremely confident of what the result will be.

All scientific studies of the external cost of various energy sources show that nuclear's external costs are tiny compared to those of fossil fuels, and roughly the same as most renewable sources. One of the most recent studies was performed by the European Commission, and its results are summarized at the link below:


Jim Hopf